How To Cope In Times Of Uncertainty

ron young Dec 18, 2020

Since we cannot see the future, some amount of uncertainty and anxiety is inevitable. However, we can moderate the stress that often accompanies it. Uncertainty has been an unavoidable part of life for centuries. The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus said, "Everything changes and nothing stands still." Putting a humorous spin on it, Benjamin Franklin wrote, "In this world, nothing can be certain, except for death and taxes." 

The Covid-19 pandemic has created massive levels of uncertainty that are more intense, far-reaching and complex than any other crisis in recent history. Now more than ever, we need to become more tolerant of uncertainty so we can resist its powerful negative impact. Is it possible to increase our tolerance of uncertainty? Absolutely. Understanding "intolerance of uncertainty" (IU) and coping strategies will decrease our vulnerability to its adverse effects. 

Understanding The Intolerance Of Uncertainty

In Frontiers of Psychology, Lauriola et al. investigated IU measurement and found that the more we consider uncertainty unacceptable and threatening, the greater our IU. The ability to handle uncertainty varies from person to person. Some can manage a lot of it. Others are unable to take even small amounts of it. Sometimes we catastrophize, expecting that the worst possible scenario will happen. When we worry excessively, we strive to control our lives' details by planning and preparing for everything. 

Consequences of an IU disposition include avoiding the topic, chronic doubt, attempting to control uncertain situations, overestimating the potential impact of threats, worrying and seeking reassurance. As IU increases, depression and anxiety increase proportionately. IU is an underlying factor across diverse psychological challenges. 

When there is a lack of knowledge about a particular aspect of the world, levels of tolerance or intolerance of uncertainty influence positive and negative psychological responses, including cognitive, emotional and behavioral. Individuals with a higher tolerance for uncertainty have a stronger sense of well-being and lower negative affect. Research concerning the Uncertainty and Anticipation Model of Anxiety (UAMA) found that high anxiety results from exaggerated expectations about the probability and cost of future threats.

After applying to several doctoral programs in counseling psychology, I worried excessively about whether I would be accepted or rejected for admission. Some days, I felt confident about being admitted. Other days, I doubted that any of the schools would find me qualified to be in their programs. I worried that all the other applicants were better qualified than me. I had a fatalistic view of the consequences of being rejected. I made myself miserable. If I had understood the concept of uncertainty and effective coping strategies, I could have saved myself much pain. 

Strategies For Coping With Uncertainty

There are three common ways that people relate to uncertainty: fear, control and staying in the moment. Fortunately, there are practices and behaviors to enact in order to help build resilience and "act as if" you are already tolerant of uncertainty. Anxiety Canada provides six steps for building that tolerance.

Rather than catastrophizing, examine your assumptions about what the future will bring. Consider other, less adverse future outcomes. Recognize what you can and cannot control. Resist the fear of losing control by deciding to let go of the demand for certainty.

Often the need for certainty is fueled by an unrealistic perfectionism about reality. Challenge yourself to act based on a rational judgment that is supported by evidence. Then develop the habit of acting without demanding certainty before doing so.

Be guided by probabilities rather than demanding certainty or expecting guarantees. Accept that you are imperfect and will make mistakes about the future. Decide to stop procrastinating, ruminating and worrying now, not tomorrow. 

Uncertainty Is Inevitable, But Not Unmanageable

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, uncertainty levels are much higher than before, but we are not powerless to its effects. Learning about the concept of uncertainty provides a framework for managing it. Educating ourselves about proven coping strategies and practicing them increases our power over its consequences.

We can choose not to fall prey to the anxiety and depression associated with uncertainty. While waiting for acceptance to doctoral school and an internship, I suffered needlessly. That experience led me to learn and apply some of the coping strategies discussed above. Today, I have a greater tolerance of uncertainty. If only I knew then what I know now. Hopefully, you can take the tools outlined above and implement them in your own life to increase your tolerance during these uncertain times.

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Ron Young

Dr. Ron Young, the Founder and CEO of Trove, Inc. specializes in professional coaching & development.